For most parents their children are the most beautiful, creative and intelligent in the world. It is understandable; we cannot say the contrary. However, in recent times it has become normal to speak of children as if they were trophies, parents have lost all trace of modesty and began to exaggerate the achievements of their children. But praising children too much and turn them into a kind of trophy is not good for their emotional and cognitive development.
We must praise the effort, but in moderation
A few years ago several psychological studies have shown that a kind of praise destroys the child self-esteem. When we praise some features, such as intelligence, we are actually limiting children because they end up developing fear of failure. As a result, next time they face a task, they choose the simplest problems, for not failing again and to receive the same praise. This way they won’t grow but remain stuck in their comfort zone.
In the same studies it was observed that children who are praised for their efforts end up being more persistent. These children develop what has been called the “growth mindset”, based in the desire to improve.
But as a result of these studies, many parents and teachers have drawn erroneous conclusions thinking that it is enough just to praise the effort because the child engage more and go beyond.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, in psychology there are no linear formulas, and also praising excessively the effort has negative effects. This is the thesis suggested by Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychologist who has dedicated four decades of his life studying the “growth mindset” and warns us that we have to take a break on the way to stop and reflect on the type of education that we are giving to children.
Abstract praise doesn’t work
According to this psychologist, parents and teachers have been carried away trying to stimulate “growth mindset” in children, ending up offering empty praise just to give it a try, without a real learning or a palpable result. In practice, it is as if we fell into the opposite extreme: we stopped worrying about results and learning and we are now overestimating the effort.
But the important thing is to find the right balance. The effort is important, and sometimes deserves praise, but it is equally important to achieve certain results. Although the effort is commendable, praise should be effectively directed to improve learning, we must not lose the sight of what children need to learn.
Unfortunately, many parents and teachers say they have a “growth mindset” when in fact their educational methods do not contribute to the development of this attitude in children. Praising the effort in an abstract way and offer empty praises is useless how to dance to propitiate the rain… This is not “growth mindset”.
The shocking experiment that shows the damage caused by the fixed mindset in children
A study at the University of Chicago analyzed how mothers praised their children from the first year of age up to three years. At five years old psychologists have found that the form of praise used by parents was closely linked to child’s mentality and their willingness to face challenges. Children receiving adequate praise not only faced more challenges, but they were also better at school.
In another experiment realized at Stanford University it was asked to 4 year old children to choose between a simple puzzle they already made and another more complicated. Who had a fixed mindset preferred the simple one, allowing them to reassert their ability because they thought that smart kids do not make mistakes. Those with a growth mindset chose the more complicated one and considered a strange option that anyone would like to do again the simple puzzle.
This shows that at such a young age, many children feel the need to prove that they are smart and avoid mistakes, while others take into account new challenges that allow them to grow.
But the most interesting results didn’t yet come to light: analyzing brain waves of these children it was possible to see how responded to difficult questions and feedback. These psychologists have found that children with a fixed mindset were only interested in feedback that reaffirmed their ability, but disconnected when they were explained more details that could help them improve and learn. In fact, they even didn’t show interest in knowing the correct answer when they were wrong, probably because they had already cataloged the experience among “failures” in their minds.
In contrast, those with a growth mindset were very attentive to all the details that could help them expand their knowledge and skills, regardless of whether they had been successful or not in their responses.
How to promote a genuine growth mindset?
We all have a growth mindset, but we also have a fixed mindset. Strengthen the first one requires effort and once developed does not mean that we cannot lose it. In fact, the criticism may put a person put on the defensive, losing his thirst for knowledge. Therefore, it is important that parents and teachers develop an educational style that really promotes this kind of mentality.
When parents or teachers have a fixed mindset transmit to children the idea that their abilities are set in stone that creates in them the need to constantly put to the test to see how far they can get. The problem is that when they are wrong they think they have failed and to be unable to go further because they think having reached their “limit”.
Unfortunately, many adults have not been able to change that mentality that has been inculcated into them since childhood and are consumed with the aim to continuously put to the test, first at school and later in working life and in relationships. Every situation is a confirmation or denial of their intelligence, personality or character. They face any situation thinking: Will I succeed or fail? Will I prove that I’m smart or I’ll look to be an idiot? Will I be accepted or rejected?
On the contrary, the growth mindset teaches that mistakes are opportunities to grow. In fact, it is the most difficult issues that stimulate major growth.
The key to promote a real growth mindset is to teach children that their brains are like muscles that can be strengthened through hard work and perseverance. So, instead of saying “Not everyone is good at math, you only do what you can”, a teacher or a parent should say, “Every time you solve a mathematical problem your brain grows”. Or instead of saying: “Maybe math is not your strong point”, a better approach might be: “Mathematics is not one of your strengths, you will still have to force yourself a Little”. Thus the emphasis is on the effort, but in order to get results and to enhance learning.
The most interesting aspect of this new approach is that it shows how intelligence is malleable and that everyone can change their way of thinking. On the other hand, you have to consider that mistakes are not failures or signs indicating a lack of intelligence, but only opportunities to test skills and develop them.
Gunderson, e. A. (2013) Parent Praise to 1- to 3-Year-Olds Predicts Children’s Motivational Frameworks 5 Years Later. Child Development; 84(5): 1526–1541.
Dweck, C. S. (2007) Boosting achievement with messages that motívate. Canadian Education Association; 4(2): 6-10.
Mueller, C. M. & Dweck, C. S. (1998) Praise for Intelligence Can Undermine Children’s Motivation and Performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 75(1): 33-52.